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Prisons for Profit, cont.

by Eric BatesThe Nation
May 4th, 1998

Alex Friedmann doesn't look like the kind of guy who would incite a prison riot. Slight and bespectacled, Friedmann measures his words carefully and is quick to point out his own biases. So it came as a bit of a surprise a few weeks ago when Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the world, abruptly transferred Friedmann from its medium-security lockup in Clifton, Tennessee. According to Friedmann, the company accused him of "efforts to degrade C.C.A. with negative articles and outside sources."

Among those "outside sources" was The Nation, in which I quoted Friedmann in my January 5 cover story on C.C.A., "Prisons for Profit." Company officials refused to let Friedmann see the article, as he explained in the March 16 Nation Letters column, on the grounds that it "could incite disobedience to law enforcement officials or prison staff." Friedmann appealed the decision with the support of Nation publisher Victor Navasky, who urged state prison officials to heed the First Amendment, "which teaches us that the way to combat ideas and information we don't like is not through censorship but rather with better ideas and information."

A state prison official overruled C.C.A. But before Friedmann could see the story, the company transferred him to a prison run by the state. Tennessee officials upheld the move, describing Friedmann in an official document as making "a deliberate effort to disseminate material which is negatively oriented to the prison operating company."

The C.C.A. campaign to silence Friedmann underscores one reason private prisons are able to profit so handsomely at the expense of inmates and taxpayers. By "picking jackets" -- guarding only the healthiest and most docile inmates--prison firms keep costs down and dividends high. When a prisoner falls ill or proves troublesome, C.C.A. simply ships him back to a state-run prison, where the bill is picked up by taxpayers instead of company shareholders. Unlike the state, private prisons enjoy the luxury of banishing anyone who threatens the bottom line.

The day Friedmann was notified that he was being transferred, he was attempting to send material about C.C.A. to state lawmakers considering a bill that would hand over most of the state prison system to private companies. On April 14, activists fighting the measure won a victory: The sponsors tabled the proposal, effectively killing it for the remainder of the legislative session.

For those discouraged by the rapid trend toward privatization, the campaign against Friedmann indicates just how deeply corporate executives fear information in the hands of a determined activist. "Alex is intelligent," C.C.A. warden Kevin Myers conceded this past fall. "But once he gets in his mind that something's wrong, he's going to hit it with a vengeance forever and ever, amen."

Amen.

Eric Bates is a staff writer at The Independent in Durham, North Carolina.